One of my favorite authors: Nadine Gordimer, from an interview in The Paris Review
Do you have a fascination with death?
Not consciously, but then . . . how can any thinking person not have? Death is really the mystery of life, isn’t it? If you ask, “What happens when we die? Why do we die?” you are asking, “Why do we live?” Unless one has a religion . . . Without a religious explanation, one has only the Mount Everest argument: “I climb it because it’s there. I live because there is the gift of life.” It’s not an answer, really, it’s an evasion. Or, “I think my purpose on this earth is to make life better.” Progress is the business of making life more safe and more enjoyable . . . fuller, generally. But that justification, it stops short of death, doesn’t it? The only transcendent principle is that you are then seeking to improve the human lot for future generations. But we still don’t get past the fact that it’s a turnabout business; it’s your turn and then it’s mine, and life is taken up by somebody else. Human beings are never reconciled to this. In my own life I am made puzzled and uneasy by my attitude and that of others to death. If somebody dies young it’s so terrible, it’s such a tragedy, and the sense of waste is so strong; you think of all the promise that was there. And then if people live into old age, there’s the horror of decay, especially—it’s awful to say—but especially with exceptional people; when you see their minds going and their bodies falling to pieces, and they want to die and you want them to die, then that’s equally terrible. So it’s the mere fact of death that we can’t accept? We say it’s terrible if people die young, and we say it’s terrible if they go on living too long.
I have always loved the following Donald Justice poem, so I was very excited when this post showed up on my Tumblr dashboard:
“As we chatted afterward in the glow, it came up that in Denis [Johnson]’s studio, out in Idaho, he has a plaque on the wall that reads, ‘The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.’ This happens to be a line from a Donald Justice poem I’ve never been able to get out of my head, and have never wanted to. It comes to me on walks or when lying awake, also for no reason. Reciting the lines, I reenter the brief time I knew Justice, during a summer spent tending bar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the mid-nineties. Justice was staying upstairs, in the house where the bar was. He had a little ritual. Every night at about ten, when the rest of the writers were gearing up for some ego jousting, Justice would come down quietly in his Mr. Rogers sweater and ask for a glass of milk, which we kept on hand for White Russians. He would take a couple of sips, say something pleasant, and slip back upstairs to ‘work on a poem.’ There was something eloquent in the gesture, and yet, in the way he lingered, you sensed that he wished he could stay. It was easy to see why the one D.J.’s work had appealed to the other.”
~ John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Donald Justice’s ‘There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings’”
Music by Sting, “Fields of Gold”
There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings
There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
“[T]he task is not so much to solve problems as to propose questions. To quote Karl Kraus, ‘A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.’ There’s also an element of reportage, the description of new situations or conditions, but that’s pretty much a matter of identifying them rather than talking about solutions. Baudelaire noticing that the boulevards of Paris were no longer a means of getting from here to there but had become more like theater lobbies, places to be, and writing about that. The search is for a question that will generate light and heat.
“All this has to do with a possible extension of means. Abstraction is a little heaven I can’t quite get to. How do you achieve, for example, “messy”? De Kooning can do ‘messy’ by making a charcoal stroke over paint and then smudging same with his talented thumb—in prose the same gesture tends to look like simple ineptitude. De Kooning has a whole vocabulary of bad behavior that enables him to set up the most fruitful kinds of contradictions. It frees him. I have trouble rendering breaking glass.”